Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Mismanaging Expectations

If the Cleveland Indians are guilty of anything this season, it's mismanaging expectations and nothing more. A fast start out of the gate, something the fans aren't particularly used to, fueled an optimism that the underlying talent ultimately just can't fulfill.

Making it all the more frustrating is the fact that the fast start was in large part due to ank incredible streak of timely hitting. Now that it has ended and the players have mostly regressed to their norms, may fans are apoplectic.

It didn't need to be this way.

Had those norms taken hold as they should have earlier on, the Indians would probably be sitting in about the position most had staked out for them before the season began. In that context, the recent call up of Lonnie Chisenhall, for example, would look a whole lot less desperate.

But the Indians did get off to that fast start, fans got to thinking that this could be the year and Tribe management was left with the rather vexing conundrum of how to make it look like the team is trying to win it all while knowing that there aren't nearly enough horses to make a legitimate run.

So what did they do? Of course, they fired the hitting coach. There's precedent for that move. Almost 6 years to the day from when current manager Manny Acta sacrificed Jon Ninnally to the god of swings and misses, his predecessor Eric Wedge did likewise to Eddie Murray.

This isn't to make the case for Nunnally one way or the other so much as it is to underscore that Nunnally was sacrificed on the altar of unreasonable expectations. But that's just the kind of move teams like the Indians tend to make to placate the fans.

In truth this year's team is hitting remarkably similar to last year's squad. It's a little ahead of last year's pace in terms of runs scored, butnthe batting averages, on base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS are virtually identical.

And why not? It's pretty much the same team or at least the same type of team. Travis Hafner is hitting this year while Shin-Shoo Choo, now on the disabled list, is not. Grady Sizemore was on the DL last year but his contributions this year, particularly lately, have been minimal. And then there's Austin Kearns, taking up space once again but at least doing so on the cheap.

Maybe that actually makes the case for dumping Nunnally because the Indians were a lousy hitting team last year. But at the very least it makes the case that from a hitting standpoint the Indians weren't ready to compete this year at a playoff level. The only reason anyone thought otherwise was skewed expectations and nothing more.

But just as water finds its level so too do major league baseball teams. The Indians are no exception and this perhaps is what fans need to remember most. The grind of a 162 game schedule allows for several peaks and valleys but ultimately it provides sufficient time for a team to reveal its true self.

Where it would really pay for the Indians to better manage fan expectations is in better explaining that this team while this team isn't playoff ready it isn't a miserable mess either. Indeed there are some building blocks exactly in the place they need to be, on the pitching staff. There have been a few hiccups lately but the bullpen has been more than just a pleasant surprise.

Chris Perez is having an all star season. Tony Sipp has been excellent as have Rafael Perez, Vinnie Pestano and even Joe Smith. Any team with a bullpen that is pitching like the Indians' bullpen is going to be competitive.

The starting rotation has three very solid pitchers at the moment in Justin Masterson, Josh Tomlin and Carlos Carrasco. Fausto Carmona has a wicked good arm and a wicked awful mental approach. He doesn't need a new team to get straightened out, just a mentor and more nurturing.

You don't need tape of the late Pete Franklin screaming in your ear to know that the only real way to build a team is through pitching. Once that's in place then you get more of it. And once you have more of it you get even more of it. The game of baseball has changed a million ways in the last 100 years but the one thing that hasn't changed is that the teams with the best pitching usually prevail.

Assuming Indians general manager Chris Antonetti understands this point, and he certainly seems to, it could hardly be argued that he doesn't have the team pointed in the right direction.

But pointing in the right direction and actually arriving at the destination are hardly the same thing. There's a pretty bumpy road in between and that's what the team is really experiencing at the moment.

The fast start made it seem like the Indians long strange trip to respectability had maybe arrived at the outskirts of their playoffs destination when in reality all that happened is that the team bus hit a particularly smooth stretch of highway where they could hit the accelerator without worrying about any speed traps.

But then people started to notice and not surprisingly it's gotten tougher, much tougher.

As a result fans are coming to the rather halting conclusion now that was staring them in the face all along--not this year, folks and it's making them a little angrier than they probably should be.

Fortunately, this is Cleveland where don't stay mad at our teams, only certain players and owners. The resignation that comes when the expectations get rightly downsized has creeped in as evidenced by the ever increasing refrain, spoken seemingly every year, to "just let the kids play."

What many fans didn't realize is that's what the team had be mostly doing all along.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Lingering Items--Laboring Edition

For those who hate the business side of professional sports, the news that the NBA owners are spoiling for a lockout as much as the NFL owners did probably isn’t all that welcome.

The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of this month and for now the players and the owners are getting nowhere fast. There are plenty of similarities between the NBA’s labor issues and those in the NFL, but central to it is the straw that always stirs the drink: money. Would you expect it to be about anything else?

According to a recent article about the negotiations from the Associated Press, the NBA owners are claiming losses for this season at $300 million and an anticipation of 22 of its 30 teams losing money. That’s pretty dramatic if true.

The players don’t necessarily agree with that assessment because they say that television ratings have increased along with ticket prices and merchandise sales. They don’t have any more access to the owners’ books than the NFL players and thus can only speculate on how much the league might be losing. As an aside, why isn’t anyone complaining that NBA owners won’t open their books?

In any event, like their brethren in the NFL, NBA players seem to understand that the economy has changed, at least for their fans, and are willing to make some compromises but it’s the scope of those compromises that are the sticking point. Again, would you expect it to be anything different?

The lynchpin to these negotiations is likewise similar to that in the NFL: the owners’ desire to get better cost certainty. In the NBA the chosen vehicle is the revision of their currently byzantine salary cap into a more straightforward version. But since it’s the NBA where exceptions dwarf nearly every rule, don’t be misled into thinking that it’s a hard cap the owners want in the same way that the NFL has a hard cap. That would be too radical of a change and, frankly, would make too much sense.

If you listen to the players, who claim they’re united just like any labor group claims unity among its troops, they’re willing to give some money back presumably in the hope of having a larger pie to divide down the road. The owners have scoffed, yes scoffed, at what they call the modest moves of the players to this point, but so much of that is just posturing anyway.

Still there is less than a week before the contract expires and while much can happen between now and then, in all likelihood not much will happen. This is the owners’ first real chance since the economy cratered to address their issues and they won’t let go of that opportunity lightly.

In other words, don’t be surprised when the NBA owners do lock out the players, possibly as early as July 1. Like the NFL’s lockout, it probably doesn’t mean much with the season months away but it means enough to label the situation serious, assuming you care whether there is another NBA season ever.

What’s far less certain is whether the NBA players will pursue a litigation strategy. It’s mostly been a failure for the NFL players in that it hasn’t given them the perceived leverage they thought they would have, but that doesn’t mean the NBA players are any brighter than their counterparts in the NFL.

The other thing to keep in mind is that if DeMaurice Smith is the worst head of a professional sports union then Billy Hunter, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, is a close second.

What makes Smith inept is his abject lack of experience. He’s a litigator by training and brought that mentality to the NFL players, hence the massive amount of litigation taking place that has bogged down negotiations. What makes Hunter inept is just a general lack of competence and gravitas.

But in fairness to Hunter, he probably understands that David Stern controls the NBA with an iron fist to the point that Hunter would never be willing or able to effectively challenge that authority anyway. Stern is more Kenesaw Mountain Landis and less Roger Goodell and as long as Stern’s in place the players are only going to get as far in these negotiations as he’ll let them.

Whatever union president Derek Fisher’s claims of unity among the players may be, they’ll never effectively challenge Stern’s control or break his will to shape the game as he sees fit.

You don’t have to be fully versed in tea leaf reading to conclude that unless the players knuckle under between now and June 30th, Stern will lock out the players. The only question is whether the players will be as pig-headed as their counterparts in the NHL and let a full season pass until they figure out that for however popular their sport might be in China, in the United States whatever fan uprising might occur will be drowned out by the otherwise massive fan indifference.


As for a sport the fans really do care about, football, the good news is that the owners and the players are finally negotiating in earnest. For the most part the posturing that inevitably arises at contract expiration time has given way to the realities that whatever else the courts could do for either of them, the one thing they can’t do is the one thing they need the most: a new labor contract.

The lack of real substantive news coming out of these negotiations is actually a very positive sign. The less the principals talk publicly the more likely it is that they are getting things done behind the scenes.

The average fan, even the average fan who’s in a labor union, probably doesn’t fully appreciate the complexity that is the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement. Much of that complication comes from the provisions dealing with the division of revenue, but the contract is also so much more than that.

The other thing the average fan may not realize is that although the re-slicing of the financial pie is a major issue, there is a laundry list of other items the parties are working their way through, including retiree health care, injury pay and the like. These take time as well.

But the real complication stems from the nuclear approach the union took to these negotiations. It’s not just about reaching a new labor contract. It’s also about resolving the pending lawsuits, particularly the underlying class action lawsuit that was filed.

Without going into the rather mundane details of class action law, the resolution of that lawsuit is subject to both the approval of the court and the prospective class members. Then there is the not so small matter of the union re-certifying as the collective bargaining representative for the players. Although the NFLPA is calling itself a trade union and its attempt at decertification has been disputed by the owners, ultimately this issue needs to get resolved and the union needs to re-form as part of what will surely be a global settlement. Without the re-certification, the negotiated collective bargaining agreement cannot technically be approved by the players.

In short, the parties could reach a deal on the new contract but the process of approving it and living by it could take months to work through. That doesn’t mean that the lockout would need to remain in effect until that happens. But rest assured that unless the owners have very good assurances that everything will get resolved they will be reluctant to open the doors.

It seems like a very good chance that a tentative agreement will be in place in the next few weeks. Whether that means football will ultimately start on time is hard to say. But if it forces a delay in the season, the NFL probably won’t complain anyway. With the way they run the league, nothing would please them more than to play up until the day that baseball’s spring training starts in mid February.

A few quick words about Travis Hafner and the Indians.

As frustrating as the Indians recent slump has been, what’s more frustrating is that their highest paid player literally cannot play a position other than designated hitter. For a team that has trouble generating offense, the fact that Hafner is irrelevant for the 9 games in National League cities is a cause for real concern.

Basically the Indians go into this stretch fielding a team with 7 legitimate bats, given that the pitcher will have to hit as well. Everyone saw how moribund the Indians’ offense looked when Hafner was on the DL. The likelihood now is that it will be worse for this stretch in large part because it’s as if Hafner is back on the DL.

It’s nice to see that Hafner has regained most of his batting eye after walking through the desert the last few years. But it’s not so nice that the Indians are paying the kind of money they are paying Hafner and have to endure similar stretches of their schedule when he simply can’t play.

Nine games may not seem like a lot given a 162 game schedule, but going 2-7 instead of 5-4 against the National League could very easily be the difference between making and not making the playoffs.


With all the frenzy surrounding the Cavaliers’ just completed draft, this week’s question to ponder arises: How many of those fans either praising or bitching about the Cavs’ picks can honestly say they’ve seen Kyrie Irving or Tristan Thompson play enough to have an informed opinion?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Big Man

It was with incredible sadness that the news from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band came down on Saturday evening that Clarence Clemons, the blood brother of all blood brothers, the King of the Universe, had passed away at age 69. Clarence's death followed a week after he suffered a massive stroke.

The thoughts and prayers of millions upon millions have poured in along with every kind of tribute imaginable. But as much as we'd all like to capture the essence of Clarence and bottle it, the truth is that Clarence was never meant to be confined in such small ways.

Clarence never seemed of this Earth in the first place. He once explained that he had no idea where any of his famous sax solos and runs that have dotted so many Springsteen records came from. He'd simply wet the reed on his tenor sax and the moment would take him to a place that us mortals could never comprehend.

But what we could comprehend was the product, so sweet and soulful that it became an integral part of music that has been the soundtrack of our lives. Even as Springsteen toured solo, acoustic there were always calls for the Big Man. And as enjoyable as those solo Springsteen shows were and as memorable as those Seeger Session shows were, it always felt like something was missing. It was. Clarence. Even Springsteen seemed to recognize it, occasionally glancing to the right, perhaps out of sheer habit.

There are any number of Clarence moments to choose from but the two most famous are the soaring, searing solo from Jungleland and the incredible run that turned Born to Run from a great song to the masterpiece it became. The second that solo ended, everyone knew what was next: "one, two, three four..the highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive."

Springsteen and Clarence were always twin sons from different mothers. Along with the late Danny Federici, Max Weinberg, Steven Van Zandt, Roy Bittan and later Nils Lofgren, Springsteen and Clarence formed the greatest rock band of our time. The Rolling Stones and the Beatles were seminal groups, the predecessors really of the E Street Band, but they were so much a product of their time.

The E Street Band, with Clarence as its emotional counterweight, was the essence of all that had come before them and all that would ever come again. The E Street Band will continue in some form but we all know it will never be the same.

It's unfortunate that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has not yet found the time to induct the entire band. It's a long overdue honor and it's sad to think that when it does happen Clarence won't be there to receive the just rewards of a professional life well lived.

In addition to every memorable moment with the E Street Band, Clarence kept active with every kind of guest appearance imaginable with as wide a variety of artists as is imaginable.

There's the latest Lady Gaga song Edge of Glory and the recently released video that was Clarence's last appearance ever. Take a listen and look for the Big Man:

On a more local level, I'll always remember his contributions to the Michael Stanley Band's single best album, Heartland, which was made that much better by Clarence's inclusion on several tracks, including Lover and Stanley's biggest single, He Can't Love You.

Embarrassingly, when MSB filmed the video for that song, some cheesy poser in '80s hair faked the Clarence solos. No one could ever match Clarence's signature sound. I'll post the video only because the sax solo is so good and it's laughable to watch a goofy white guy fake the solo as if he were Clarence:

A passing like this can never really be overcome. We'll accommodate, we'll adjust but we all know that it will never be the same. More's the pity.

So rest in peace, Big Man. You deserve it. And thank you for all the joy you've brought to us all. We could never adequately repay you.

One last moment and the one that is on permanent rotation in the radio in my head: Jungleland, from Hard Rock Calling, Hyde Park, London 2009:

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Oh Oh Oh

Honestly, I don't know what to think about this golf video, except it may be the funniest golf video I've ever seen, though admittedly how many are there? Still, credit to professional golfers Ben Crane, Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler and Hunter Mahan who had the guts to release this masterpiece as the U.S. Open beckons. Enjoy:

Monday, June 13, 2011

Always a Follower, Never a Leader

The reactions to the Dallas Mavericks winning the NBA Championship, or more likely, the Miami Heat not winning the NBA Championship, are about as expected. You can’t just take a dump on an entire city and its fan base the way LeBron James did on Cleveland and not expect a little backlash.

And for however thoughtful James can appear to be at times, he does have a tendency to become his own worst enemy at just the wrong time, which only feeds the beasts. His press conference afterward was classic James: poorly masked irritation mixed with a healthy disrespect for anyone who doesn’t agree with him and wrapped in a giant tortilla of egomania.

It’s true as James said that once those people who feel good about James losing will eventually have to return to their own lives filled with their own problems while James goes off and lives what he views as a better life. But it’s the underlying premise of it all that eventually will come back to teach him another hard lesson.

James didn’t have the best upbringing and the remnants of it are still ever present. He had no father and his mother had her own problems to deal with. He floated from family to family just looking to belong. He often found himself around people with money but had none himself.

So it doesn’t surprise that so much of how James measure himself against others is on a material scale. He lives in a house in Bath Township that is more on the scale of a hotel than on the scale of the 3,500 square foot houses that surround it. He has a collection of cars he garages separately. He’s got every material good his little heart always wanted but couldn’t afford. He jets around the world, has countless other celebrities as friends and his occupation amounts to shooting a ball into a hoop.

But the suggestion that an abundance of material goods is the only path to happiness is too ridiculous to spend much time debating. I suspect that even James would admit to being content for long stretches of time earlier in life when money wasn’t ever present.

And even if that weren’t ever true for James, it is true for many, many others. People have a way of making the best of almost any situation.

It’s not like James’ life is unencumbered, no matter what he’d have you believe. Generally speaking, the more overhead you take on the more problems you take on as well.

It also can’t be any fun to constantly deal with your own mother and her predilection for public flameouts. As his celebrity grows his circle of true friends probably shrinks. There’s always someone looking for a piece of him, from every worthy charity you could think of to every acquaintance he’s ever made who’s now down on his luck.

And then there is the abject failure he’s had as a professional to reach the only goal that really matters: championships. Division titles are nice. So too are MVP trophies. But until he wins a title, he’s Charles Barkley.

As much fun as it is to celebrate James’ comeuppance for the way he handled the business side of his basketball life, there is a larger point that is being missed and that goes back to that same upbringing. The story as written is that James failed because he once again couldn’t lead a stacked Heat team to the championship. The story that doesn’t get written enough is that James is never going to lead any team to a championship because he’s not a leader in the first place. He’s the most talented follower professional sports has ever seen.

Much has been made about James’ fourth quarter failures in the Mavericks series and indeed in the larger sense James did consistently come up short in that regard. He had a total of 18 fourth quarter points in 6 games and according to the Elias Sports Bureau had the biggest single drop off between regular season scoring average and finals scoring average in NBA history.

Surely much of this should properly be attributed to the Mavericks’ defense and James gave them the proper respect. But if you were looking for anything more from James as to why he wasn’t able to help his team more, he wasn’t offering. Where once all he wanted was just to belong he now lacks the self-awareness to recognize that he’s still on that same search.

Instead, he bristled at any questions about his performance, particularly in those crucial fourth quarters, by suggesting that his other contributions, such as his defense, were being overlooked. It’s akin to the argument that right now Indians fans shouldn’t focus on Shin-Soo Choo’s lack of offense because he’s still a fine defensive player.

But Pat Riley didn’t make a mockery of the NBA’s free agency system just so he could get James to play really nice defense while another team, this time the Mavs, won the championship. He bought and paid for James because he damn well expected James to live up to his 30 ppg average and then some when it was really needed, like games 4, 5 and 6 against those Mavs.

Ah but what Riley and everyone else puzzled by James’ passiveness continues to overlook is that they can pay James a king’s ransom for now and evermore but that isn’t going to fundamentally change his make up. James is passive and deferential. He doesn’t possess the single-mindedness of purpose that Michael Jordan did. James has always just wanted to fit in while someone else drives the car.

James was always the best pure player on any team he was on, from CYO through high school and now as a professional. But until he came to the Cavs, James was never the leader of any of those teams nor was he asked to be. Ultimately, he left Cleveland not because the Cavaliers could never surround James with enough talent to compete for a championship but because in Cleveland the focus would always be on James.

As much as people like to think of James as the center of his own universe, it’s just not how James sees himself. He’s the guy who’d really rather get the assists. If he were in a band, he’d be the drummer. Perhaps he’d be the greatest drummer in the world, but he was never looking to form his own band and insert himself as lead singer.

If James were truly the alpha male of the NBA and had all the leverage the most people attribute to him, then there is no way that a middling role player like Chris Bosh turns his back on him as he did in deciding to go to Miami instead of Cleveland.

Brian Windhorst, writing for ESPN, noted that while James asked both Bosh and Wade to join him in Cleveland, neither player ever gave it any real consideration. Wade flirted with Chicago but wanted to stay in Miami. Bosh told James he was headed to Miami as well. Ultimately, it wasn’t James who made The Decision at all. It was made for him by much stronger and forceful personalities. It was made by Wade and Bosh.

In that context, all of what happened with James in the Boston series last season or what happened to James against the Mavs this season makes perfect sense. It’s convenient to think that James quit but in reality he just lived up to his instincts to play second fiddle and wilted when the spotlight was turned on him alone.

His teammates and his new transient fans in Miami may have expected more but as they will eventually discover, just like his teammates and fans in Cleveland discovered, James gave them all he could.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Closing Another Chapter

Terrelle Pryor was always supposed to leave Ohio State after his junior year. It’s just that it was assumed it would be through the front door and not some back alley during finals week of his spring quarter.

Whether Pryor left of his own volition or was pushed probably doesn’t matter much. He’s gone and off to wherever his mercurial life takes him next. He’ll probably latch on to a NFL team at one position or another at some point. He may have to take some detours first, like the CFL. Maybe he just fades away. For Pryor, his next career will only take him as far as he’s willing to let it.

If past is prologue, that thought doesn’t bode well for Pryor. On the other hand with kids past rarely is prologue. So there is hope.

There are new allegations of course about Pryor that came out the same day he left Ohio State for good. The latest set is from someone who labeled himself as a one-time close friend who got tired of Pryor’s arrogant attitude. This anonymous source claimed he witnessed Pryor being paid between $20,000 and $40,000 in exchange for signing various pieces of memorabilia.

It’s a pretty damning accusation if true but the principles involved, including the person who is alleged to have made the payments, claim it never happened. There have been no cancelled checks produced and no proof other than a disgruntled ex-friend. On that score, it’s always instructive that those making the accusations try to bolster their credibility by claiming a close relationship with the alleged perpetrator but then are too afraid to identify themselves publicly.

At this point, not much of this really matters much anymore anyway. Pryor didn’t so much leave the Buckeyes as he did the jurisdiction of the NCAA. No longer bound by their rules and under no compulsion to subject himself to any more investigations or interrogations from them, Pryor’s exit is more about relieving himself of the headaches that come with acting like a professional in a land of sham amateurism.

Pryor will be vilified for years because he’s an easy target. He comes across as arrogant and entitled but let’s remember, since we’re the adults in the room, that usually these are just the outward manifestations of the real affliction—raging immaturity.

His charge going forward will be to learn and grow. It won’t be a straight line because it never is. For Pryor’s sake, though, hopefully he can learn from the adversity that he inflicted upon himself in the same way that Maurice Clarett, Pryor’s like-minded bookend to the Tressel’s years, finally learned from his.

In a story from Rusty Miller for the Associated Press, Clarett gave an interview on The Dan Patrick Show and offered a surprising, refreshing and yes, mature, perspective on what’s taking place at his former school.

In no uncertain terms Clarett blamed the players, just as he blamed himself, for the trouble that followed their actions. Clarett dispensed with the notion that Ohio State has been infiltrated with a cadre of boosters preying on unsuspecting players. Instead it is the players themselves that go looking for trouble, looking for ways to capitalize on their local fame, and doing it under the radar. As Clarett said, boosters didn’t reach out to him, he reached out to them.

Maybe that’s little solace to Buckeye fans at the moment, but it does illustrate that even if it does seem like the Buckeyes are trapped in a do-loop of accusations and investigations, the world indeed does keep on spinning.

For now though, those caught in this ring of Hell, including most Ohio State administrators and the Board of Trustees, are just as happy just to close the book on Pryor as he likely is on them. As it is, Pryor will now essentially be remembered for nothing on the field (though his contributions there were considerable) and always for being the catalyst for the program’s more destructive instincts.

Whether that assessment is fair likewise doesn’t really matter anymore anyway. What matters most is public perception and once Gene Smith and Gordon Gee, at the urging of the most senior members of the Board of Trustees, determined that Pryor, like Jim Tressel, became the stain that couldn’t be cleaned, he had to go, graciously or otherwise. If Tressel was getting lukewarm support from Smith even as he was being dangled as the entrée for the NCAA’s investigative appetite, Smith’s silence toward Pryor was deafening.

In most ways, what’s happened to the Ohio State Buckeyes football program since the end of last season is unfathomable. I doubt anyone thought that the Buckeyes program was pristine in the same way that no one thinks that any major football program is pristine. But I doubt that anyone thought the Buckeyes program was built like a Bluth Family housing development, impressive from the outside but lacking virtually any substance behind the façade.

And yet here we are, just 6 months from the end of last season and the Buckeyes program looks more worn and tattered than a fading 2002 National Championship banner hanging from a flag pole in the neighbor’s yard. It seems like a week hasn’t gone by since the run up to last year’s Sugar Bowl when another negative story about this player or that coach hasn’t come out.

There’s a certain fishbowl quality to any major program, but the Buckeyes aren’t just swimming in a fish bowl. At the moment it seems like they are the only fish in a very large aquarium and all anyone can do is fixate on them at the moment. That glare will end at some point. Sooner or later another school will step into it and become the next target of the collective wrath.

But until that happens, it’s going to be body blow after body blow and like the captive Louis Zamperini, the hero of Laura Hildebrand’s excellent book “Unbroken” had to do in front of his Japanese captors, Buckeyes fans will just have to take the punches and the kicks and the constant degradation without flinching lest even more then be inflicted.

Even as this latest chapter in the Summer of Hell for the Buckeyes unfolds, I suspect that eventually those fans that bother to stop and consider Pryor in a broader context will begin to understand and empathize, if just a bit, recognizing that in many ways he, like every other Cam Newton of the world, is the byproduct of the intense greed that rests at the center of big time college football.
For whatever else this sordid tale tells us, it screams for major reforms. Until that happens, until those issues are finally and forcefully addressed, those laughing at Pryor and the Buckeyes at the moment would be wise to keep in mind that the next Terrelle Pryor may very well be working his way through your favorite college program right now.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Asking the Right Questions

If you’re wondering whether the Ohio State “story” would ever die down, you’re not alone. It seems like too many folks just aren’t as satisfied as they thought they’d be taking down Jim Tressel. They want more bodies as they look for more people to blame for their own loss of innocence.

The story is no longer Ohio State. It’s all the sanctimonious hand wringing taking place by self-appointed moralizers in the media who are getting a unique thrill dragging the lifeless corpse of Tressel through the streets again and again.

We’ve seen it from the dullards at Sports Illustrated to the dimwits at Yahoo Sports to the empty heads at ESPN. If that isn’t enough for you, then you probably haven’t picked up your local paper in awhile (and you wouldn’t be alone on that count) because the locals aren’t going to miss an opportunity to jump in, late as usual.

If there is a victim here, it’s perspective. Lost in the two-step everyone is doing on Tressel’s grave is that in his 10 years at Ohio State, there were probably 900 or so players that went through the program. We know that in that time, Maurice Clarett and the Tattooed 5 broke NCAA rules. Ray Small admits he broke rules but was never charged. The Sports Illustrated story names about 28 players although there isn’t verification of that number from any credible, independent source.

Still, using the number of players that sold their own memorabilia for tattoos and possibly marijuana (although there isn’t any confirmation from any credible source of that accusation) identified by Sports Illustrated, it represents just 3% of all the players that went through the program at that time.

In one sense, that suggests 97% of the players were clean. Now all the moralizers like to throw in comments like “we know it was more than that” but that’s just a way of making the problem look worse without having to bother to offer actual proof that it really is. It may very well be that the number is higher. But even if it doubles, that means that just 6% of all the players that went through the program broke the rules.

That isn’t to excuse any of that behavior, either. The rule they broke is dumb but it is the rule. And 97% might get you an “A” in class but as far as the NCAA is concerned, anything less than 100% compliance is considered a failure. Fair enough. That’s the program these schools signed up for and they have to live with that blood pact.

But the point is that rampant vilifying of Tressel and Ohio State as running a criminal program just doesn’t match the facts. It only matches the convenient narrative of a bunch of lazy journalists who can think of nothing better to do then kick and punch a body that’s already been beaten to a pulp.

What should be frustrating to most people at the moment is that the underlying infraction by Tressel was his failure to tell the truth and yet so many moralizing on Tressel at the moment are themselves far more willfully ignorant of the truth than Tressel ever could have been in his time at Ohio State.

Does it matter that Sports Illustrated’s entire article was built on conjecture dressed up as fact? To me it does and hopefully it will to the NCAA, but who knows? They’re as random as any sports governing body anywhere and that’s taking due notice of outfits like FIFA and the International Olympic Committee.

There is virtually nothing in the Sports Illustrated article, outside of the admissions from the players we already knew about, which could ever stand up in a court of law. Maybe that’s not the right standard when this is being tried in the court of public opinion but it strikes me that before you impose any form of death penalty, whether it’s on Tressel, Gene Smith, Gordon Gee or a bunch of college kids, you ought to have something more to go on then supposition, conjecture, half truths and supposition.

But why single out Sports Illustrated? Terry Pluto, who usually gets things right, used his bully pulpit in the Plain Dealer to call for Ohio State to dismiss Pryor from the team. There is not one shred of logic, let alone fact, to indicate exactly why Pryor should be subject to such a drastic action. It’s just Pluto saying that it will help rid the team of its problems.

I’m not here to defend Pryor except from unfair journalism. If he did more than what he’s already been punished for, then by all means he deserves whatever action comes next. But Pluto hasn’t suggested that Pryor is guilty of anything other than supposedly bad judgment for showing up for a meeting in a brand new used car for which no one has accused him, let alone proven, that he didn’t pay for. Indeed, both the university and the dealership went to the unusual step of publicly demonstrating that Pryor got no such special deal on the car.

Maybe Pryor used bad judgment, I’ll leave it to moralizers like Pluto who live at a higher level than the rest of us to decide. But it isn’t a reason in and of itself to kick the kid off the team. Let’s at least wait until there’s an actual factual reason to do so.

Then there was Bob Frantz, the morning blowhard at WTAM who apparently has someone transcribe his ramblings into a column in the News-Herald. He gave a nice little shout out to the Sports Illustrated story and then piles on without any actual facts with the kind of throwaway line that tends to make these situations far worse than they are. He talks about the 28 players named by Sports Illustrated and says there were “probably more” even though he has nothing to back up that kind of statement than the view he has from inside his dark little studio in Cleveland.

Frantz’s larger point had to do with beating down the notion that paying college athletes won’t solve problems like this, it will only make them worse. I’m not sure how he got from Point A to Point B on that theory, but that’s the least of the problems with his column. Taking an even higher and more naïve moral ground than Pluto, Frantz says that amateur athletes must remain amateurs and it’s up to the adults in the room to make that happen.

The problem with the premise is that college athletes, at least those in Division I on scholarship, have never been amateurs. If what distinguishes a professional athlete from an amateur is payment for services rendered, then the mere fact that the payment a college athlete receives is in the form of an expensive education and not cash is a distinction without a difference. Both are still quite valuable. The college athlete is only considered an amateur by fools like Frantz because that’s how he chooses to label them. It doesn’t mean it’s true.

It’s really just a question of how much more college athletes should be paid. It’s a fair question to debate but suggesting that giving them a cash stipend like graduate assistants get will make things worse has no basis in fact.

This whole scandal at Ohio State will serve a greater purpose if it becomes a watershed moment by which everyone who ever made a buck off of it re-evaluates their own priorities. But these things rarely work that way, even if they should.

I’m tired of every writer at Sports Illustrated who ever bothered to publish an opinion advocating for a college football playoff because of the money moralizing against a stupid college kid wrongly thinking that he can’t get in trouble by following the actions of those who are supposed to be shaping his development.

There's a real food chain in college athletics. It starts with the media and the networks that pay millions upon millions for the right to broadcast games. It extends next to the universities that take that money and millions more in sponsorships of all sorts, from luxury boxes to exclusive apparel deals with the likes of Nike. It extends next to the athletic directors who are rewarded financially for putting good competitive teams on the field and increasing the athletic program’s revenues. It extends next to the coaches who are usually the highest paid employees at their universities. They get paid enormous sums for winning and they jump from program to program without care or concern to enhance their own bank accounts. The final link is the kids who actually make it all happen—the fuel without which this train would go nowhere. They get a free education but are constantly lured by the professional ranks, if they're good enough, to leave early and not even finish that education.

In that entire chain, the most pressure is actually put on the least mature and least equipped--the students. They are the ones that aren't supposed to act like every other money-grubbing adult in the chain above them and God forbid if they do. The chain gets broken and high minded thumb suckers at publications like Sports Illustrated lead the parade over the dead bodies by stupidly asking “how could this all happen?” not realizing that they didn’t even bother to ask the right question.

It reminds me of the scene from Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters” where Frederick the artist is telling his girlfriend about a dull show on Auschwitz that he had just watched on television: “More gruesome film clips and more puzzled intellectuals declaring their mystification over the systematic murder of millions.” As he shakes his head in bemusement, he says “the reason they could never answer the question ‘How could it possibly happen?’ is that it’s the wrong question. Given what people are, the question is ‘Why doesn’t it happen more often?’” As Frederick notes, it does just in subtler forms.

Indeed. That’s the state of college athletics at the moment. Given what’s been created, the focus shouldn’t be on the individual perpetrators but the conditions that have come to exist that all but guarantees it will happen more often.